Monday, February 27, 2012

Meet the Neighbors: Joe Webb, a.k.a. "Mr. Joe"

Mr. Joe was one of the first neighbors that Matt and I met in Cleveland-Holloway when we moved here in 2008. He is known to many as a mentor and giver of sage advice, and on any given day, several neighbors and friends can be found gathered on and around his porch on Oakwood. Over birthday treats and various gatherings I've caught bits and pieces of his story, and knew that he'd been in this neighborhood close to thirty years. So it was an honor to finally sit down with him (and his friend of many decades, Bo Docher) at his house, to hear more of his life story and what it's been like living in Durham all this time. Here's some of his interview. I know it's long! Once you get this man talking, there's no stopping him. Enjoy.

* * *

Full name?

Joe Cornelius Webb. I was born September the 28th, 1939, in Franklin County. Louisburg.

What was your family like?

We was ordinary people. Like everybody else. Easy to get along with if you let us. I had three sisters and twelve brothers. Twelve of us boys. See, we were like the twelve disciples. I was ninth.

I been in Durham over fifty years. I worked at Duke forty. I was in Durham way before then. I didn't go to Duke til '62. Worked til 2002. I worked in the hospital... we did the laundry. Running the machines, washing clothes.

Where were you staying then?
I stayed on Mangum Street. Queen Street, Murphy Street, Alston Avenue, and here. And Ottawa. I moved from Ottawa to here.

What brought you to Durham?
Tired of farming.

Was Duke your first job when you got here?

No. Worked at a grocery store. Hayes and Son [?] Grocery store. Downtown, but it's tore down now. Right down below Kress before you get to the railroad tracks. On Mangum Street. I used to work at Kress. Darkroom, maintenance work.

It had to be in the 50's [that I came to Durham].

What was Durham like then?
It was Durham then. I don't know what it looks like now, but it was Durham then. We had two way streets like it is now. Then they changed it to one way then they changed it back. I remember when Walgreens used to be downtown. Kress's. Baldwin. Rose's. Silvia's [?]. I remember all them. Silvia's had a 5 and 10 cent store on top and the basement was a grocery store. And a young men's shop. I remember when Sear's used to be where the health department's at now. Bus station used to be up there on the corner of Dillard and Main Street.

What kinds of things was there to to downtown? Was there a movie theater?
Yeah, the Uptown.

What was a good weekend in Durham like?

Every weekend was good to me. Went out and enjoyed myself every time I wasn't working. Went out enjoyed myself, went out clubbing, went out to the Stallion Club out there on 55... enjoyed myself. Biltmore used to be on Pettigrew. The Uptown was on Church Street.

Do you remember a time when all that started to change?
It changed after Martin Luther King. Started changing then. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I'm free at last. Martin Luther King. That's when he got assassinated and and that was the year when John F. Kennedy got assassinated. I was in Durham then. The people changed. It got so they hated each other more. Whole lotta change. So much change.

Bo: Black people used to have a separate bathroom and they discontinued all that back in the late '60s. And they started making everything equal, jobs, hiring more women, more black businesses, different stuff.

Do you feel like things changed for you then?
I know it did. ...I used to be over there on Mangum Street where Channel 5... I remember it was all houses back then. Coming back toward town by the Pepsi-Cola plant there used to be a flour mill, Occoneechee flour mill, over by Mangum Street. Make you flour and stuff. Roxboro and Pettigrew, used to be a little old service station there.

What was your favorite year?
It's hard for me to say, 'cause all of them were good to me.

Favorite neighborhood?
I don't know what they called Mangum Street then... Macmillon? It changed when I came to Durham.

When did you come to Ottawa Street?
I stayed on Ottawa twenty-eight years. I started out rooming. As people would leave, I'd take that room. All of them would leave, I had four rooms upstairs. 511 Ottawa. That big blue house. It was a two story house, but they changed it over since Graham had got it, they changed it over to a one family house. But it used to be, you'd go in downstairs, or you could go upstairs.

I remember the man, Mr. Riddle, he would run the store next door, that little old store, he would run that. He got killed in that store. They was trying to rob him.

Bo: Seventy-something... Sevent-eight, I believe.

Joe: By the time I got back, they had brought him out of the store, put him in the ambulance. [?]-Bryant picked the body up. Everybody went out there. He was a good man in that neighborhood.

Bo: I wish we had a whole lot of them like him.

Joe: Me too. He was a good man. Only thing he had wrong.... only thing hurt him... his wife.

Bo: His wife was mean.
Joe: She won't nothing but the devil. I seen her truck coming to bring him Pepsi-Cola in crates. I seen her take every one of them, throw them on the floor and bust them all to pieces.

Bo: She didn't want him to do nothing unless he asked her. She wanted to be the boss, and were the boss, 'cause he would give over to her. But she didn't ever changed him between people. He would always treat people good.
Joe: He lived down on 70.

Can you tell me about this neighborhood back in the 70s?

I didn't run up and down here too much. Naw. I knew some people up here, but not too many. [Primitive] was a dirt street. I knew everybody up there on Ottawa. You know that man drives that green truck? He was living over there on Ottawa. Most of the people living on Ottawa are dead.

Compared to now, were there more people or less people living here?

Was it safe back then?
A whole lot safer than it is now. A whole lot safer then than it is now. Didn't nobody bother nobody too much.

When did it start getting worse?
It really started getting worse when drugs came out.

Bo: when the started closing the plants and services stations, that's when it started coming out.

Joe: I ain't been in but one fight since I been to Durham. First night I came to Durham, right up by the bus station. A guy thought they were gonna get my little money. I took that stick I had... got on the bus and went down to my cousin's house. They tried to... "Hey Mister". One walked in front, one walked behind. I stepped out between them. And he asked me about money... he shouldn'ta asked me that. I know I had some on me 'cause I just had finished farming. I had money in my pocket.  I had pretty good money in my pocket. I was a stranger. They didn't know me, they thought I was a guinea pig. I was a guinea pig. But they got the worse end of it. Yep. 
That's not a warm welcome.
It was a welcome for me to do what I had to do to keep them from getting me. I welcomed them good. See, I ain't worried I'm in the hood.

When I first came to Ottawa, it wasn't called Ottawa. It was Forest then. They changed it over while's I was living on Ottawa.

I ain't never had no trouble. I could hear shooting. I'd just come on in the house and close the door. A bullet ain't got no eye. I'd never know which they were shooting, but I know which way I went. In the house.

[The conversation made its way back to Mr. Riddle.]

Bo: He was so good to people, that's what I can't understand.
Joe: I couldn't understand it neither.
Bo: If he had something you wanted, all you do is ask.
Joe: Ask him. I had went to him and said, Mr. Riddle, I'm going home today but I ain't got no money. Just like that. He'd say, what do you want? I'd tell him, he'd let me have it. He'd say when you pay it back, pay it to me, don't send it to my wife. He wife was named Maxine. He was alright.

What do you want to see happen in the neighborhood?

I'd like to see them fix up like I done to my yard. If everybody fix their yards up and try to get along good with each other.

What's your advice on how to get along with people? You seem to get along with everybody.
Just work with each other and make everything go good. You don't charge me for everything you do, I ain't gonna charge you for everything I do. Some things you do for people, you ain't supposed to charge them for.

Bo: If you want to live neighborly-like, you gonna treat people like neighbors. Something you want to know, or need you to do, ask them. And try to have a conversation with people when you got time. That makes a big difference. Just say you got a visitor come to spend time with someone living in the neighborhood, introduce them. If you seem them in the street, you don't have to spend a whole lot of time, just, 'this is my brother, this is my sister, so and so, live in New York', or whatever. I mean, that's how you get to be a neighbor.
Joe: And too, it makes people pay more attention, like you leave, say, I'm going out of town, Joe, keep an eye on my house too.

It's always gonna be some like that. I ain't gonna tell no lie, and I ain't trying to hurt nobody's feeling. But you know, it's still some hard-nosed black people, and still some hard-nosed white people. Me and my cousin used to come up Ottawa, there was a woman lived on Ottawa, and when she'd come up we'd speak, she wouldn't say nothing. We'd keep going. We'd come back through and speak, and you know what she told us? 'I don't appreciate  you n** speaking to me'.  And about a month later, she came down to the house, want a conversation with us about buying [my] house! We talked to her, and we didn't talk rough to her. See, the old saying is true. What goes up comes down, what goes around comes around. It'll do that. I always said one hand watches the other.

I had a good supervisor down at the laundry. Mr. Parish [?] He had a house down on the water... Beaufort? Had a big house down on the water. I went when we left the laundry, I'd be gone Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday morning I'd be coming back. Three or four times.

He retired and I had another boss, he was just as good. I can't think of his name.

Were you ever married?

No. Didn't have time.

I loved my life the way I lived it. I enjoy myself. Do about what I want to do... I sit back and think about my life, what I went through, and it's all good. I don't think I want to go back through part of it, though. Some of it, I wish I could go back through it.
What's your favorite time?

Back in my late twenties, thirties. If I could go back there, I'd hurry and go back. I enjoyed myself.

What did you enjoy?
You won't want to hear all that! I don't think so! I'll tell you so much, but so much I can't tell you, now.

If you could give some advice to kids in their early twenties...
You think they would listen to you?!

Let's just say that they would.
Number one, stay off of drugs, leave them drugs alone. Everybody mostly take a little drink now and then, just don't get too much in you. Some people just good as gold until they get some alcohol in them. Then I can't stand them. Stay out of trouble. That's what they got that place down yonder for, waiting on you to get in trouble.

Bo: Number one, treat people as you wish to be treated. That's the number one key. If there's anything you can be able to do to help a person help themselves, don't hesitate. And being sassy to older folks, that's a number one.
Joe: That's the worst crime you can get.

People tend to gather around you for advice and company. What do you think makes people do that?
I growed up around my daddy. My daddy used to make most of his things. Tools he worked with. And I stuck around with him, and I learned how to do things like that. That's why people come to me and ask for advice. Running up farming, you learned a lot. Doing things on the farm, then you can use some of that in your yard. I don't forget where I come from. I try to help other people with it. Some listen, some don't.

You got any big plans for your yard?

Keep it looking good.

Who do you think has the best yard in the neighborhood?
Me. I ain't tellin' no lie. And I ain't bragging on myself, now.

What's your favorite time of year?
Summer. I don't have to worry about [the heater]. The older a person gets, the blood starts thinning. 

I think [this neighborhood] is heading in a good direction. It's done changed a whole lot. You can see a big difference. When I was working at Duke, I used to walk from Ottawa to my job. To the West End, about 20 minutes. I'd be coming down the street walking, taking my time. I worked nine or ten hours a day. Some days my supervisor would say, what time can you come in in the morning? I'd say, what time you want me to come? I'd say, 2, 3 in the morning. I'd be there at 3 o'clock. I'd work til 8, 9 that night.

I had a girlfriend. 27 years. I come home to get her, take her back to the job. If she'd get sleepy, I'd make her a pallet. All that linen in there. I'd make her a good pallet in the office, let her lay down there and sleep. Mary-Ann. She stayed out there with me til I got ready to come home. I told you. I enjoyed myself.

She died on Ottawa. She just got sick, it was just her time, far as I know. I was laying in the bed beside her when she died. It didn't scare me, though. If you were going together, 5, 6, 7, 10 years, you lay in that bed, you think I'm going to jump up and run? Naw, it didn't bother me. No. [She was from] here in Durham.

Do you remember riots?
I remember the National Guard was here. I stayed down there used to be Motel 6. It was cold. They would bring the car tires to burn down there to stay warm by, we couldn't let nobody in or out unless they had ID. I was working as a security guard then.

Bo: We used to have curfews then.
Joe: I was working at Duke, working 12 hours a day, 9 hours a night. With the curfew. I could go anywhere I wanted to go, I was working with the people working with the national guard.

Bo: I worked at Durham Business College in security too, and that was about the worst that I seen, far as riots.

[Below: Mr. Joe, 2010]

Joe: The national guard, they'd be at schools, go around every school in Durham, checking them. I been there. I've seen people get busted in the head with bricks, bottles, everything. Right down on Main Street where the Uptown movies used to be. Bunch of girls, boys, standing there, just looking. Like it was something sweet to look at. If I wasn't working, I wouldn't be out there. 'Cause I know somebody be throwing and knock the shit outta somebody. I know one guy, come up here, had a lot of mouth. Started a whole riot up there on Main Street. Black was talking to white. And that's what messed it up. That guy got... bricks, bottles, jail, everything. They had people in that jail house, you couldn't even feed them. People had to carry 10 tubs of stuff down there so people'd have something to eat in that jailhouse. I seen all that happen. Breaking out windows and everything. And when that guy run Uptown Movie. He said, I'll shut this door before I let any n*** in here. He didn't let them in there, neither. But he closed it up. Then it changed over so anybody could go to it. But he didn't, he closed it up.

Bo: there was a restaurant over up on Holloway Street, said before he'd let black people sit down in there he'd just serve everyone at the window. And that's the way he did. He didn't want black people coming in to sit.

Joe: I went home one weekend, white boy down there (he's a good ol white boy, too, we called him Bo Jay). He used to like to eat at my momma's house.  [To Bo:] He's the one I told you 'bout had that Chevrolet that run under the tractor trailer, cut the top right off, just like somebody took it off with a handsaw. But he kept that car, kept it running... we'd be riding around with no top. That was a nice Chevrolet. We went to Spring Hope, he said, come on, Joe, let's get us something to eat. We pulled up at a cafe, got out, went to the door, the man said, 'what do y'all want?' He told him. He said, 'well I can fix you a plate, but I ain't gonna fix him one'. Bo Jay said, 'okay, go on and fix me one then'. The guy fixed a nice plate, set it in Bo Jay's hand, he just turned around and went like this: [mimes flipping the plate upside down and smashing it on the counter]. He said, 'you eat that. you know I ain't gonna eat that'. We ran right down to my mama's, sit at the table, mam fixed up something to eat. Sure did.

We started hauling wheat. Ms. Gaye [?], that's the lady we were farming for. She put me and him on the truck hauling wheat to Spring Hope, Wilson, Rocky Mount, Henderson, to sell the wheat while ther... [?] Shouldn'ta never did that. Every liquor store 'tween where we could see, we were stopping at 'em. We were drinking banana brandy. We'd get us a pint. Hauling wheat in that big ol' truck of his. Just had a good time, me and old Bo Dig.

I did go to New York City, when I first got here, that first week. I just wanted to leave for a while and come back. I went to New York City, I come on back. I got back home on a Friday, Saturday morning I had a job. I worked til I retired. I changed jobs twice, til I got to Duke. I wanted Duke to start with. When I got to Duke I thought, I ain't changing no more. And I stayed there til I retired. I loved that place! I can't even recall what a good time I had. Everything was good there. Mm, mm, mm. Now that's one place I wish I could go back through again. I really enjoyed it. I think about that a lot now, I'll be sitting there laughing... I'll be laughing about what good a time I had. I enjoyed every day of it. I didn't have to worry about nothing.

What made you finally stop?
It was time to stop. I'd put in 40 years, said, I don't want to work up to where I can't walk. They wanted me to stay on and be a leader. Naw, man.  The did good for me. They give me a party, a big dinner. I got a red tool box sitting in there full of tools. Give me a money tree... a leather coat. They set me up. They did good for me when I retired. I enjoyed it. Didn't want for nothing.

[Above: one of many certificates that line Mr. Joe's living room honoring his perfect attendance at work.]

1 comment:

Natalie said...

Mr. Joe is such a kind neighbor. He always has porch for folks to sit on, and ear to listen, and an eye on the kids

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